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Originally published Friday, November 18, 2011 at 5:33 AM

Restaurant review

Cuoco serves superb entrees, pastas aplenty

Cuoco is one of a trio of Tom Douglas restaurants in the South Lake Union area. The pasta selections at this inviting restaurant are as tempting as the dinner entrees.

Special to The Seattle Times

Sample menu

Poached eggs in tomato sauce $9
Roasted beet salad $12
Tajarin $12
Cappelletti $19
Barbera-braised pot roast $24

Cuoco3 stars

Italian

310 Terry Ave., Seattle

206-971-0710

www.cuoco-seattle.com

Reservations: Recommended

Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. Monday-Friday; dinner 4:30-10 p.m. Monday-Saturday; 4:30-9 p.m. Sunday; Happy Hour 4:30-6:30 p.m. daily.

Prices: $$$ (lunch entrees $15; dinner starters $9-$12; entrees $12-$30)

Drinks: Full bar; wide-ranging Italian wine list

Parking: On street or in nearby lots

Sound: Moderate to loud depending on where you sit

Who should go: Pasta lovers, Italian-food lovers, lovers in general

Credit cards: All majors

Access: No obstacles

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Cuoco is the handsome Italian occupying the ground floor of the two-story brick edifice that houses a trio of Tom Douglas restaurants; Brave Horse Tavern and Ting Momo are upstairs. The complex is ideally positioned to function as a food court of sorts for Amazon's still-expanding South Lake Union campus, so I wasn't too surprised to see a couple that looked an awful lot like Jeff Bezos and his wife holding hands across a table at Cuoco. If I worked in the area, that's where I'd go for a romantic weeknight respite.

Remember Lady and The Tramp nibbling the same long noodle? Cuoco (pronounced KWO-ko, Italian for "cook") is at heart that same sort of brick-walled, candlelit, red-tablecloth joint, updated for the new century's more sophisticated diners.

Servers lack the Italian accent, but not the Italian warmth and professional demeanor. The striking, red-tiled pasta-making station and open kitchen, central to the floor plan, put the focus on the cooking. The pentimento effect of wine racks visible behind the glass bar back underscores the symbiosis of Italian food and wine. Lit in dramatic chiaroscuro, Cuoco's comfortably furnished nooks, alcoves and secluded dining areas encourage the conviviality and communality intrinsic to Italian-style celebrations at the table.

Executive chef Stuart Lane experienced this firsthand. The Bellingham native trained at the Italian Culinary Institute in a Piedmont castle before becoming pastaioli at Holly Smith's Cafe Juanita, and eventually her chef de cuisine.

Just about everyone orders pasta here. With 10 different noodles on the menu, the choice isn't easy. Will you have the ethereal tajarin, unimaginably thin hand-cut egg noodles dressed in butter and sage, or their much wider, marinara-sauced cousins, tagliatelle, twined around roasted Delicata squash and chunks of spicy Italian sausage? Will you opt for the dainty cheese-filled cappelletti in silky fonduta sauce, or the savory, meat-stuffed agnolotti dal plin that resemble tiny origami birds just emerged from a butter and marjoram bath? What about butternut squash gnocchi, so light and supremely autumnal tossed with chanterelles, hazelnuts and sage? I'm no help: I loved them all.

Equally tempting are dinner entrees of grilled chicken and pot roast. The bird's leg and thigh meat fell from the bone, the breast was moist, the herbed skin crackled. The chicken nested among yellow-fleshed Satina potatoes and braised green cabbage tart with vinegar. Save some for lunch, I told myself, but all that was left were the bones.

Barbera-braised beef was another big portion. The wine's intense berry and spice flavors penetrated every tender fiber. Parsnips, carrots and fingerling potatoes must have been roasted separately: they were sweet, slightly crisp and ardently seasoned with salt and rosemary.

Abbondanza is the word, too, for such starters as steamed mussels (two-dozen-plus petite Penn Coves), sausage-plumped calamari, and poached eggs submerged in thick tomato sauce. Calabrian chilies put just the right amount of heat in the shellfish's butter and white wine broth, celery leaves and crisp white bean cake offset the calamari's spicy filling, and curls of fried prosciutto added salty, satisfying crunch to those tomato-coddled eggs.

Looking for something simpler? Try rosy slices of Parma prosciutto paired with Honey Crisp apples (move over melon); or any salad, especially a citrusy ensemble of roasted beets, escarole and Satsuma. You'll find mellow braised fennel gilded with candied kumquat among side dishes of vegetables and grains meant for sharing. A modest $3 fee for bread service buys a chunk of Dahlia Workshop's rustic house loaf, plus a trio of condiments that includes rosemary-flecked lardo.

Wrap things up with chocolate budino, a velvety pudding topped with crumbled, salted almond cookie, pure decadence despite its humble presentation in a tiny canning jar.

Some come to Cuoco for the romance, and there are plenty of dark corners for that, a few too dark for dining ease. Others work through dinner, like the two men who settled in with martinis at the table next to me. By the time their pasta arrived, they had pens out and were scratching numbers on the brown butcher paper overlaying the tablecloth.

Providence Cicero: providencecicero@aol.com

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